Panama City, Panama

Panama City Skyline (Photo: iStockphoto/zxvisual)
by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 27, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Auckland, Buenos Aires, currency exchange, destination, Florence, Hamburg, Ho Chi Minh City, hotel, Krakow, London, Miami, Mumbai, New York City, Panama City, Paris, Sarah Pascarella, vacation package, vacation rental.

Frommer's describes Panama as "deliciously free of crowds"—and what better endorsement do you need? Even if you're based in Panama City, a range of outdoorsy activities including watersports in both the Caribbean and Pacific, bird watching, and hiking, can fill a vacation. Mountains, rainforests, and beaches are plentiful, creating a spectacular setting for vacationers, regardless if you want to break a sweat or just relax by the waves.

The country's currency, the balboa, is interchangeable with the U.S. dollar. Additionally, the dollar is accepted nationwide, so no worries about exchange rates or inflated prices here. Better yet, food and transportation are very affordable, and Lonely Planet estimates travelers can get by quite comfortably on $60 per day. Penny-pinching travelers should have no difficulty budgeting even less. Regardless of whether you want to scrimp or splurge, the possibilities are affordable.

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Flights from New York start at $355 in spring and I found a three-star Panama City hotel from $60 per day. A seven-day vacation for two comes in at $1,130.

Let's compare a week in Panama City to a week in Miami. While at first this comparison may seem to be a contrast between outdoorsy adventure and city nightlife, both destinations offer easy beach access, rich Latin culture, and a laid-back atmosphere. Flights from New York start at $162 in April and May, and I found a three-star hotel in Miami Beach from $114 per night. A seven-night vacation for two would cost $1,122—just eight dollars less than a comparable Panama trip.

That paltry savings, however, would be blown by Miami's high food and entertainment prices. It's not unusual for cocktails to cost $10 and up, and many clubs will have a cover charge for you just to walk through the door. Unless you want a vacation full of deli and fast-food options, most restaurants will have an average cost of $25 per person. And in this glitzy city, the sky's the limit for boutique shopping and other entertainment options. At least the beach is free... but compared to Panama, in this case you'll be spending a lot more to stay stateside. With a trip to Panama City, you'll be paying a comparable base price for a chance to experience the unfamiliar, and expanding your horizons by immersing yourself in a new culture.

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